15, 16, 17 are the best-known of British reggae’s new crop of female vocal trios.
CHRISTINE’S new beige sandals tap the floor impatiently. Hot and humid condensation splashes from the pipe over her head, wetting the ruffled neckline of her new white shirt. She can feel drops slither down the coils of her white turban; and her nose crinkles up, almond eyes blink, as she shakes her head impatiently.
She looks up. The real dimensions of the room are shrouded in strands of grey mist. The corners appear for a hazy instant, then blur as figures crowd into a new configuration; the only certainty is that the room is very crowded.
Over there are Wray and Sonia. Christine recognises them by the gold thread in Sonia’s new mohair jumper. Christine squeezes through tentacled dancers until she reaches her sisters’ sides. Actually, only Wray, Christine’s older sister, is a direct sister, but Sonia practically lives round our place, calls my Mum Mummy ‘n’ everything.
Sonia, she’s talking to Castro Brown (Author’s note: the Svengali/Father Figure) again. Wonder if he means what he says about us coming to the Talent Contest? We deserve to win it – we’ve worked so hard on our dance steps. We’re better than any of those girls they have dancing on Top Of The Pops, and I’m telling you the truth, when they had the Three Degrees on telly the other night, we danced better than them! And sang their own song better, too!
I always like to enter competitions, anyway. Any kind of competition. We all do – just ask Sonia, or Wray. If we’d only remember to post those coupons lying underneath the table in the front room, we could have all had a weekend in Paris from Honey. I know they only said it was for two, but they’d have to say that, wouldn’t they? And there was that car they were giving away on the side of the Corn Flakes box – I’m not old enough for a driving license yet, anyway, but Wray is, and we could all pay for her driving lessons.
I s’pose I could get a Saturday job at Chelsea Girl. They probably give you a discount on the clothes, too, and there’s a satin suit – cream, with flowers in the material – that I want to get anyway.
You’ve got to look good on stage. You’ve got to please an audience. I know even though I s’pose it could seem strange when I haven’t really performed yet, not a whole show. But I know what I like, I like songs you can sing along to, and that’s what he’ll want too – John Public. Truthfully.
But applause is a siren song tugging Christine’s ears, and, having heard it once, she knows she will hear it again. She did agree to get up on stage and take the mike from the lead singer of the Equators; she’d only hesitated for show, really she knew she was going to do it as soon as Linda started teasing her, saying that she and Sonia and Wray could sing ‘Caught You In A Lie’ better than they could.
But it was – just natural. Because, see, I’ve been singing all my life, really. I come from a singing part of the family. I know I speak English good, maybe you didn’t know I don’t come from South London. I came over from Jamaica to join my mum and dad, when grandma and great-grandma were getting too old, and me and Wray got to be too much of a trouble for them.
It’s three years since I used to stand up in church, and push through to the front, like I’m doing now, squeezing through all these couples hugging up instead of through scraping rows of wooden chairs. When I got to the front, I’d sing a hymn, and I’d always change the words around perhaps make it a bit freaky do my own thing. Or I’d read one of the poems I’d written.
That’s when I started writing stories, too. I’d always be at home writing stories when they expected me for the Spelling Bees at school, even though they thought I’d be there, because they all know I love competitions.
In a way, I preferred the schools in Jamaica. It never worried me that they used to beat you, “lick” you they called it, maybe 20 times, as many as the teacher felt like. Here they say if you don’t learn, it’s your fault, and there if you don’t learn they say it’s their fault and they’ll lick you.
My gran taught us German. Our family was different than the other families in Jones Town, Trench Town, concrete jungle. My great-grandma is from Scotland, so we’re from this side, really. My dad is a real Jamican, and my mother is half her mother’s German.
Slim Smith (Author’s note: a Jamaican balladeer of merit, now deceased) was my cousin, you know. He was married to one of my first cousins. He used to come round our yard all the while, and that’s where I started thinking about singing. He’d be in his 30’s now, he’d be an expert, right on top! It was something to do with managers, and artists, clients not getting their right amount of money. So he goes mad, and conks some louvre windows out. Going crazy.
Singing didn’t really attract me then, I thought it didn’t, I thought it was just for fun. But now I know that nothing will stop me. Us. Anything we have, we share. If one has money, three have money. If you pick on one, you got to pick on three. It’s always been like that, ever since Sonia’s parents brought her round one night when they came to visit our parents. We started dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire in my bedroom, and I laddered my new pair of tights.
WHEN HE saw the girls, Castro Brown knew they were something special, straight away. Just what he and Dennis needed, really.
Ever since the Morpheus label collapsed, they’d been working together – brethren before that, still, now we’re business partners, too. Nobody has ever been a better friend to me than Dennis Brown. When the whole Morpheus thing collapsed, Dennis said to me – and I’ll never forget it – “Castro, as long as Dennis Emmanuelle Brown is alive, you will never sleep on the street.” And Dennis has always been as good as his word…
Castro used to run a small independent reggae label called Morpheus – “I used to love the name at first, but then I got to hate it. Morpheus is the Jewish god of dreams (Author’s note: Inaccurate. He’s Greek) and I’m not dreaming te blaad claat! Is reality me and Dennis Brown a deal with!
“I’ve served my apprenticeship in every part of this business, I can promote, I can do advertising, I could go out and just be a compere. I can produce. I made a toasting record for DIP after the Carnival riots one year, but he sold out all he’d pressed and never done any more. I s’pose I’ve lost my deejay style a bit, but it’s still there inside me, I know that. I know every aspect of this business – I’m not the best at any of ’em, but I’m Jack of all of ’em.”
Castro Brown, wide-brimmed gangster hat, three-piece suit an’ t’ing, is a professional. Beloved Figure on the reggae scene – which inevitably means as much hated as beloved. Gentle, but there’s great fierceness within him. His manner towards 15, 16, 17, his proteges, is tender, then angry, always tinged with elder-brother/fatherly solicitude.
At school, he was a boxer; he’s still a fighter and self-promoter. Earns admiration and irritation by featuring himself largely on posters for shows he’s compering, by having a hunger for making his name known. Castro is most fierce, and most gentle, when he cares most. His loyalty to Dennis Brown is passionate; they may not have nicked their palms and mingled the blood, but they’re blood-brothers still.
“I come here from Jamaica. It’s a Sunday, it’s cold, I go to school on the Monday, I can hardly speak English. 2,000 kids in the school and I’m the only black one, no-one to talk to, no-one to understand. It was a terrible experience, I was beaten up, it’s not like now, I used to come home with spit on the back of me blazer. I’d been here four years when I had to leave home, my stepfather…terrible life, you know, I been on the street fighting, like I’m fighting today. It’s a fight. It’s not something I forget, it’s something that face me all the time.
Castro cruises on pure energy, a born organiser. His talent competitions at the Georgian Club were the real birth of 15, 16, 17. He gave them their name, riding back from the competition in a car.
“How old are you?”
Unrealistically, perhaps, Castro wants 15, 16, 17 – who are now 17, 18 and 19 in “real” time, terms – to be called 15, 16, 17 for ever.
Although the world outside may perceive 15, 16, 17 as teen idols, glamour queen-lings, soft smooch sirens, to Castro, 15, 16, 17 are an ideal. An ideal to the youth.
He wants every young black kid to look to 15, 16, 17 and say – yes, there is hope. There is a chance of that cool-flowing easy skanking existence, sweet consumerism and True Romance, and a roof over your head, food in your belly, fire in the winter.
“Roots” reggae lovers, usually white, in this country, sometimes look askance at 15, 16, 17, unable to understand why they dominate the reggae charts so persistently. The same people often used to deride disco, saying that only blues or gospel is “authentic” i.e. worthwhile music.
Have you noticed that middle-class kids run around in rags, while people brought up in poverty tend to be crisply turned-out? Rags are a middle-class luxury. No-one who was forced to wear rags wants to, as a rule.
The beauty of 15, 16, 17 is that they have never suffered.
So young that they never grew up in the crippling colour isolation Castro endured, their faces are unmarked, their motivation is laser-keen, uninterrupted by fears and neurosis.
From the moment they were “discovered,” their way has been clear. Castro has made it clear. “No-one would try to put anything over on Castro,” the girls tell me.
Sheltered by Castro’s armoured wing, the girls know: “We’ve been quite lucky, because many artists like Delroy Wilson and Dennis Brown have been ripped off so many times. We never had do like other artists, sleep in the back of trucks on the road an’ t’ing – fighting for dem pay. We could just do our show and come home again.”
YOU’D THINK that 15, 16, 17 were from a different planet than the Slits.
Like Olivia Newton-John, 15, 16, 17 are nice girls who want to be nice girls. They start out with the traditional entertainment concept; you must gratify the audience. They love to ride in the apple-cart Johnny Rotten started to overturn three years ago. They are full of maxims like Never Turn Your Back On An Audience. Sonia and Christine cluck and get quite disapproving about other girl entertainers who skank round the stage in dreadlocks, who harangue the audience in deep Rasta patois.
We are sitting round in Christine’s mother’s living-room; cosy, clean, and comfortable, the only sound the bubbling of the compressed air making the plastic skeleton in the tropical fish tank bob up and down, Scandinavian-style smoked-glass cabinets sculpted in stainless steel contain sparkling shelf after sparkling shelf of polished ceramic and blown-glass knickknacks, the white wool and sheepskin rugs are spotlessly clean and Christine’s little brother asks me politely to take my boots off the rug…
Christine’s face is a flawless Botticelli oval; the dainty Primavera curl of her upper lip is a poem. Even in a blue tracksuit, black turban, and perfectly pressed faded straight-leg jeans.
Christine’s skin is the creamy cafe-au-lait colour American blacks used to call “high yeller” and regard as the quintessence of beauty.
Sonia’s complexion is rich and butterscotch tawny, her smile has just got the cream. She is wearing strappy gold sandals and no stockings in the snow, a surreal touch of summer. She’ll take a cab back too, when she wants to leave. Enters carrying one of Christine’s dresses over her arm, in a neat plastic cover as if it had just come back from the cleaners, though it hasn’t.
These girls are bandbox-fresh, as if they’d absorbed all the books like How To Be A Girl and Growing Up Female that my parents used to buy me and I never used to understand. They are the kind of girls my mother wanted me to be. They romp and giggle in soft fur coats like high fashion cover girls.
They are children of the discos. “When we’d get £20 we’d buy three skirts, the next week we’d buy three tops, the next week we’d buy three pairs of shoes, then we’d go sporting. We used to go to Tiffany’s in Purley, and we had a nice little club round the corner we used to go to every Thursday: We’d have our new clothes on and everybody would look at us. It was fun! You couldn’t tell us we didn’t look nice, we’d tell you off!”
The difference is that Christine – 16 – is a born musician, writing songs, poems, singing round the house all her life. When I phone up and say, “Tell Christine I’m bringing a photographer, if she wants to wash her hair” (a joke) the voice at the other end laughs. “Don’t worry, Christine’s always got her hair washed!”
When photographer Jeanette Beckmann and I arrive, we dissuade Christine from changing into a dress for the photo session; meanwhile men in tracksuits wander in and out, and kids on school holiday bounce. Christine’s mother makes us sweet, creamy tea.
Christine is 18, and vehement. She jumps to her feet and stiffens with defiance as she details trying to make the rhythm guitar be more adventurous in its patterns. “I keep telling him to tune his guitar, or buy a new one. He’d get the money if he needed it. But they don’t take it serious, they’re just mucking about! If we had a band like the Revolutionaries or Aswad…”
15, 16, 17 are different from the other disco sweethearts because when Castro Brown said to them, “Girls, you’ve got talent. Write two songs and come back and see me” they went home and wrote two number one reggae hits straight away.
One, ‘Black Skin Boy’, originally on Morpheus, has just been re-issued as a DEB disco-mix. Produced by Dennis Bovelle Matumbi, he also plays all the instruments except the drums, (by Bunny Matumbi). It’s as loins-stirring as ever, sheer smoky sensuality, teenage trumbling, Christine is jail-bait, she is Lolita, and the bass line hypnotises.
Since then, there’s been ‘Emotion’, ‘Imagination’, ‘Suddenly Happiness’, ‘Only 16’, ‘Good Times’ – all DEB disco-mixes released in the space of one year, and all but one double-A-side reggae chart number ones.
Most of them are soul covers. That’s because the girls have been writing songs all year and saving them up for the album of original new songs they’re due to record shortly, with Castro Brown producing, as he usually does. Sly, Chinna and other crucial JA session men are being flown over by Dennis Brown. If they don’t get the band they want, Christine says firmly, they won’t make the album.
They’re very clear about the deficiencies of the 15, 16, 17 operation, and painfully aware that until their new backing line-up is found they can’t loosen up up on stage. They feel now that, by the time they’ve warmed up, they have to leave the stage.
They’re all prepared to put money into the band; they want to manage themselves, eventually, and produce themselves by 1980. All three girls are learning to play piano, and Christine is starting to play bass.
“I want us to know our instruments good, so when we put on a show we can do everything right. I wanna play some piano, then play some drums – I want to do everthing! All of us want to do everything!“
Castro welcomes their urge to independence; he already has the new Black Harmony trio to guide. Black Harmony have been supporting 15, 16, 17 on their dates.
“When we started, we didn’t have anyone to play with. It was just 15, 16, 17 on their own. It has always been just our records pushing us. It’s up to John Public.
“John Public is alright!”
© Vivien Goldman, Melody Maker, 20 January 1979